COLUMBIA — The Citizens Police Review Board still hasn’t reviewed a case, but it’s not because no one wants to file a complaint. Columbia attorney Dan Viets said the filing process is the problem.
The review board was formally established in July 2009. Since then, its nine members have been training and preparing to take cases, but forms and information about the board’s function and scope still aren't available.
“It’s been eight months and, frankly, I’m kind of disappointed the city hasn’t gotten its act together,” Viets said.
A client of Viets’ wanted to take a complaint to the board, but the process turned out to be “cumbersome and time-consuming,” said Viets’ secretary, Maggie Shoe, to whom Viets referred questions about what happened. Shoe was in charge of documenting the client's attempt to contact the board with the intention to file an appeal. Shoe's experience led her to think the ordinance that established the process for reviewing citizen complaints is misunderstood.
“Nobody knew where to route me,” Shoe said. “It doesn’t seem fair for anybody who needs that ordinance to be in effect. It’s not user-friendly at all.”
After two days of trying to contact someone at the city clerk's office with information about how to file an appeal, Shoe said she was eventually referred to the board's staff liaison, Rose Wibbenmeyer. Wibbenmeyer informed Shoe that no forms were available yet, but she should instead write a letter addressed to the board.
“This should have been a very simple process because the board was established in July 2009,” Shoe said. “To me, that’s time enough to develop policies, procedures and forms especially when it’s for the benefit of citizens in the community.”
The review board chairwoman Ellen Locurto-Martinez said a brochure and proper forms are in the process of being approved and printed.
Viets also said the ordinance is not being followed by police. Viets has had personal experience navigating the process from help he and his office provided client Derek T. Billups in January.
Billups had filed a complaint with the Columbia Police Department after an incident in which he said he was handcuffed and slammed to the ground by a police officer. Sgt. Don Hawkins, the patrol supervisor who investigated the complaint, responded to the complaint and concluded that the officer's actions were proper. The ordinance states that a response must be given by the chief of police.
“It does not appear that the police chief has made any decision in this matter, nor has he notified the complainant of any decision,” Viets said.
The ordinance also states that the Citizens Police Review Board does not have any jurisdiction over an appeal until the police chief has reviewed the case and made his decision.
“Just because there hasn’t been any appeals doesn’t mean there hasn’t been any complaints,” Viets said.
If a citizen is dissatisfied with the decision of the Police Department, they are supposed to be encouraged to seek out an appeal with the review board, but information about this process isn’t being made readily available, Viets said.
“There are apparently no forms available and no information available to the general public as to how such appeals may be filed,” Viets said.
Public Information Officer Jessie Haden said the Police Department doesn’t have any printed literature about the board, but that some information about the board could be found on the department's Web site.
“Since it’s so new, it’s entirely possible people might not understand how it works, and that’s frustrating for city employees,” Haden said.
Locurto-Martinez said board members have discussed plans to organize educational forums for citizens to learn more about how the review process works. Once forms are created, the board also intends to place them in places where the community can easily access them.
“We’re going to be walking the streets pretty soon,” Locurto-Martinez said.
While citizens wait for more information to become available, the board is encouraging anyone wishing to file an appeal to send it a formal letter outlining the case.
Viets said a few things should be done to make the process easier for Columbia citizens:
- Detailed information about how to file complaints and appeals should be readily available at easily accessible locations.
- The police chief should put his signature on any case that has been filed for review.
- Complaints filed with the Police Department and appeals to the board should be responded to in a timely fashion.
“It’s very disappointing how the city is dragging its feet and obviously not making this a priority,” Viets said.